WINNIPEG - There are a lot of "what ifs" in the tech geek world.

What if Beta had eclipsed VHS? What if Sony had decided in the 1950s that toasters made more sense than transistor radios? What if Alien met Predator? Oh, sorry, that's been done.

But here's a crazy one. What if the Mac became the No. 1 computer choice in the world instead of the PC? Too off the wall?

Well it just happened in October in the United States. Those stylish, 21-inch iMacs were the top-selling desktop for the month, according to market researcher NPD Group. The MacBook Pro took top spot in the notebook category.

NPD attributed the topsy-turvy sales numbers to the fact that October was a down month for PC dealers prior to the launch of Windows 7, which replaced the much-maligned Vista operating system.

Whatever the reason, it's a bit surprising considering that only a few short years ago Apple's computers were all but written off by some as a growth centre for the corporation, which was making its millions more and more through iPods, iTunes and iPhones.

"Apple computers have seen a renaissance of sorts in the last two or three years," agrees Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie, a veteran Apple watcher.

"That's been a function of many things. One is they've done a great job on design. Two is they've benefited enormously from the weakness in Microsoft. The failure of Microsoft Vista opened up the opportunity for Apple to gain significant share in the U.S. retail segment."

Winnipeg artist Brooklyn Hurst decided to stop fighting Windows and switch about two years ago.

"The more research I did the more it became clear to me that this was the right choice for me," he says.

"I'm an artist, I create websites and I use Photoshop. I found as soon as I got it my productivity increased and just the ease of use, it just seems more intelligently designed."

Of course, intelligent design comes at a premium price, which is part of Apple's secret to success with what amounts to a still relatively small market share.

"The reason it is so profitable for Apple relative to HP or Dell or the other computer companies is that they are selling at a significantly higher price," says Yoffie.

It's also reflected in the market. On Christmas Eve, Apple shares hit an all-time high of US$209.35 at one point, topping the previous record of $208.71, set Oct. 21, and thanks largely to buzz about a possible new product, apparently.

With a market capitalization driven to more than $182 billion, Apple ranks bigger than rival computer makers Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. combined.

Apple has carved out a nice niche in the upper end of the North American consumer computer market for machines over $1,000. But the business market remains a tougher nut to crack, other than the creative media and design enterprises that have long favoured Macs.

Those ubiquitous PC-versus-Mac commercials just haven't been cool enough to pry the extra cash out of corporate coffers to retool what has been the mainstay of business for four decades - the office PC.

"Companies are more hesitant about spending an extra $500 to $1,000 (on computers) when they're buying them 40,000, 50,000 or 60,000 at a time," says Yoffie.

Apple dealers are happy enough to serve the consumer market and are seeing some small inroads into business.

Jason Snadden is a computer manager at Advance Electronics, which has been an Apple dealer in Winnipeg for 12 years.

"The popularity of Apple is definitely increasing. They've made a really great product for the consumer at the retail level. They're selling like hotcakes basically."

Unfortunately for Advance, that popularity has brought direct competition from an Apple Store nearby which has eaten into their business somewhat.

But Snadden says they also are seeing more growth in business outside of the traditional design and creative applications.

"I think people are realizing when they don't have to worry about viruses and spyware and the security issues that Windows is always facing their productivity can go up a little bit."

Yoffie says Apple's market share overall has increased but it's still lagging far behind the PC.

"Apple's overall worldwide market share continues to be relatively small. Apple is going to sell somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12 million to 15 million computers this year out of over 300 million computers sold worldwide.

"Their share has grown from about three or 3.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent or five but it still makes them a relatively small player."

For that to change significantly, Microsoft needs to continue stumbling, he suggests.

"If Microsoft Windows is seen as a buggier, less-secure product that is slower, harder to use and ultimately raises costs for everybody, that opens up the market for Apple to gain that high-end segment. . . If Windows 7 is not seen as more of an improvement (over Vista) then I think you'll see more erosion at the high end."

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